Hugh Richard Wright
Restaurant PR & Communications Consultancy


Musings on PR and hospitality

How not to make a drama out of a crisis

One Saturday morning recently, I was tucking into my usual post-gym spinach & egg protein pot in my local Prêt when I bit on what was, quite unmistakeably, a basil leaf. Now I like basil, and I really wasn’t all that bothered, but I was moved to tweet lightheartedly about the odd things it does to the brain when you encounter an unexpected flavour in a familiar dish.

Within minutes, I received a reply from Prêt, expertly matching my tone while also expressing genuine concern and asking my permission for them to direct-message me to discuss things further. Soon enough, a Prêt representative slid into my DMs, took down all the details and asked for my address to send me ‘a little something’ as thanks for my time in bringing it to their attention - which turned out to be a £10 gift card. A textbook example both of great customer service, going way beyond the call of duty, and of excellent use of social media to manage even vaguely negative feedback.

When criticism is made of your business in a public forum such as social media, it’s vital to reply in a sincere, honest and most importantly, timely fashion. Bad news doesn’t age well, and the longer something is allowed to fester, the more time there is for others to join in, share it, amplify it and make matters worse. That’s exactly what happened this weekend, when a tweet from a customer at a well-known, celebrity-fronted chain raised serious concerns around a policy of waiting staff having their wages docked if customers do a runner without paying.

In stark contrast to Prêt’s super-fast response to my trivial tweet, the chain took an astonishing twelve hours - overnight, in fact - to reply to this hugely damaging allegation, in which time the original tweet had been retweeted, quote-tweeted and replied to many hundreds of times. As a result, and worst of all, it had also come to the attention of the national press, becoming headline news. While the company in question might not have Prêt’s resources, I found it astonishing that a 25-strong chain didn’t have someone monitoring their Twitter at 8pm on a Saturday night who was able to manage and contain the situation; at the time of writing, the story is the second most-read on the BBC News website. Ouch.

Crisis communications, I always say, is the ‘dark art’ of PR: if you’re really good at it, there’s never any evidence to show for it - “You know that thing that you didn’t read anything about? That was me.” But the principles of dealing with a crisis are no secret.

Firstly, respond quickly. Even if you don’t have an answer or solution right away, being seen to care and to be taking action is paramount. Secondly, if an issue arises in a public forum - a social media platform or review site, say - try as soon and as respectfully as possible to take the conversation ‘offline’. Next, make sure that your response is honest, sincere and tailored - a cut-and-paste job, or clichés, just won’t cut it.

Finally, make sure that anyone who’s shown an interest - even if you feel that there’s been a ‘pile-on’ - knows what you’ve done to put things right, whether that’s via your website, blog or social media. Less is more though - there’s no need for lengthy excuses, and getting defensive only gets people’s backs up. Acknowledge that something went wrong, explain why it happened, apologise for it, and set out what you’ve done to make sure it won’t happen again. And as with any emergency, if you’re at all unsure what to do, for goodness’ sake call in an expert.

It might sound simple, and in theory, it is. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t skill involved. If you’d like to have a chat about ongoing reputation management for your restaurant, or if you find yourself in need of someone to stop a current crisis turning into a drama, please feel free to get in touch.

Hugh Wright